'Class of '09' Is Too Unrefined to Be Great

Created by Tom Rob Smith

Starring Kate Mara, Brian Tyree Henry, Sepideh Moafi, Brian J Smith, Brooke Smith, Jon Jon Briones, Raúl Castillo

Photo: Richard Ducree / Disney

BY Matthew Simpson Published May 9, 2023

We live in perilous times. As a society, we are grappling with subjects previously only found under the purview of science fiction, the concept of artificial intelligence chief among them. We're in a place now where tools like ChatGPT can write well-crafted prose and solve complex math problems; and while we're not in danger of being attacked by Skynet just yet, it feels like we're getting close. The new Disney+ limited series Class of '09 seeks to investigate what in the present might instigate us to create these tools and what a future where they are prevalent looks like. 

The series takes place in three distinct time frames spanning 25 years. In the first episode, we meet our four main characters, Poet (Kate Mara), Tayo (Brian Tyree Henry), Hour (Sepideh Moafi) and Lennix (Brian J Smith), as they begin their FBI training at Quantico in 2009. We then jump to 2023, when they're several years into their careers, and finally, we follow them 11 years into an uncertain future in 2034.  

Each time frame has something to offer the narrative, and it is fascinating to experience the characters changing motivations throughout their careers. Poet, a nurse who joins the FBI after assisting in an investigation, uses her unique ability to read people to become a successful undercover officer. In part, thanks to this skill, she pushes away the people she loves and by 2034, is disillusioned. Tayo enlists with the bureau after working in insurance and is on a quest to solve the system's injustices, leading him to embrace a new criminal database that will eventually become a powerful artificial intelligence. 

This system is created by Hour, a daughter of Iranian immigrants who realizes early on that all the information the FBI has collected could be put together and used more efficiently. By 2023, her new scheme has repaired these deficiencies, only for her to abandon the system in the future as it becomes something more sinister. Lennix, whose parents want him to become a politician, quickly rises within the ranks of the FBI before finally pursuing his parent's dreams in 2034. 

Despite having only four main characters, the three time frames mean that there is, at times, a lot to follow, and it's a testament to series creator and writer Tom Rob Smith that it is easy to do so. While ultimately the story of the future is the main focus of the series' themes, the past and present both inform how these characters end up the way they do. Playing out these stories concurrently seems like a novel choice, but ultimately it's just a remix of the now-common flashback/flashforward structure that many shows have employed since Lost. Regardless, it's an effective tool, and the series makes good use of it. 

Of the ensemble, Mara and Henry are the strongest in each of the three stories. Mara travels the road from eager-to-help to disillusioned with a believable and sincere melancholy. Henry, though, is the series MVP. Tayo's fall as a righteous new recruit to embracing ethically dubious technology in the present plays out in an expected manner. However, his performance adds nuance and an underlying frustration that makes the transition more convincing than what is written in the script. 

And therein lies the issue with the series, at least so far. Disney provided critics with the first half of the limited series, and from these four episodes, it's fair to say the show feels a little under-baked. There are interesting tidbits in the 2009 story, but very little that couldn't be explained or transposed into the present. The 2034 timeline holds most of the series' intrigue, including a bleak and oppressive look at a future where background checks can be conducted for reasons as mundane as being a woman driving at night. But we don't spend enough time exploring these issues or the mystery the main characters are trying to solve. 

The result is a series with unmet potential (at least in the first half) that will likely receive unfavourable comparisons to shows like Black Mirror or Westworld. That is not to say that the series is bad, though. The ideas raised are timely, and the show's vision of the future is depressingly plausible. Fans of science fiction will find much to like, and there are some great performances to enjoy. But even still, Class of '09 is a little too uneven and unrefined to be great. (Disney)

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